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Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

By - January 13, 2012

(image) I’ve just been sent an official response from Google to the updated version of my story posted yesterday (Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?). In that story, I reported about 2009 negotiations over incorporation of Facebook data into Google search. I quoted a source familiar with the negotiations on the Facebook side, who told me  “Senior executives at Google insisted that for technical reasons all information would need to be public and available to all,” and “The only reason Facebook has a Bing integration and not a Google integration is that Bing agreed to terms for protecting user privacy that Google would not.”

I’ve now had conversations with a source familiar with Google’s side of the story, and to say the company disagrees with how Facebook characterized the negotiations is to put it mildly. I’ve also spoken to my Facebook source, who has clarified some nuance as well. To get started, here’s the official, on the record statement, from Rachel Whetstone, SVP Global Communications and Public Affairs:

“We want to set the record straight. In 2009, we were negotiating with Facebook over access to its data, as has been reported.  To claim that the we couldn’t reach an agreement because Google wanted to make private data publicly available is simply untrue.”

My source familiar with Google’s side of the story goes further, and gave me more detail on why the deal went south, at least from Google’s point of view. According to this source, as part of the deal terms Facebook insisted that Google agree to not use publicly available Facebook information to build out a “social service.” The two sides had already agreed that Google would not use Facebook’s firehose (or private) data to build such a service, my source says.

So what does “publicly available” mean? Well, that’d be Facebook pages that any search engine can crawl – information on Facebook that people *want* search engines to know about. This is compared to the firehose data that was the core asset being discussed between the parties. This firehose data is what Google would need in order to surface personal Facebook pages relevant to you in the context of a search query. (So, for example, if you were my friend on Facebook, and you searched for “Battelle soccer” on Google, then with the proposed deal, you’d see pictures of my kids’ soccer games that I had posted to Facebook).

Apparently, Google believed that Facebook’s demand around public information could be interpreted  as applying to how Google’s own search service was delivered, not to mention how it (or other products) might evolve. Interpretation is always where the devil is in these deals. Who’s to say, after all, that Google’s “social search” is not a “social service”? And Google Pages, Maps, etc. – those are arguably social in nature, or will be in the future.

Google balked at this language, and the deal fell apart. My Google source also disputes the claim that Google balked at being able to technically separate public from private data. Conversely, my Facebook source counters that the real issue of public vs. private had to do with Google’s refusal to honor changes in privacy settings over time – for example, if I deleted those soccer pictures, they should also be deleted from Google’s index. There’s a point where this all devolves to she said/he said, because the deal never happened, and to be honest, there are larger points to make.

So let’s start with this: If Facebook indeed demanded that Google not use publicly available Facebook data, it’s certainly understandable why Google wouldn’t agree to the deal. It may not seem obvious, but there is an awful lot of publicly available Facebook pages and data out there. Starbucks, for example, is more than happy to let anyone see its Facebook page, no matter if you’re logged in or not. And then there’s all that Facebook open graph data out on the public web – tons of sites show Facebook status updates, like counts and so on in a public fashion. In short, asking Google to not leverage that data in anything that might constitute a “social service” is anathema to a company who claims its mission to crawl all publicly available information, organize it, and make it available.

It’s one thing to ask that Google not use Facebook’s own social graph and private data to build new social services – after all, the social graph is Facebook’s crown jewels. But it’s quite another thing to ask Google to ignore other public information completely.

From Google’s point of view, Facebook was crippling future products and services that Google might create, which was tantamount to an insurance policy of sorts that Google wouldn’t become a strong competitor, at least not one that  leverages public information from Facebook. Google balked. If Facebook’s demand could have been interpreted as also applying to Google’s search results, well, that’s a stone cold deal killer.

I certainly understand why Facebook might ask for what they did, it’s not crazy. Google might well have responded by narrowing the deal, saying “Fine, you don’t build a search engine, and we won’t build a social network. But we should have the right to create other kinds of social services.” As far as I know, Google didn’t chose to say that. (Microsoft apparently did). And I think I know why: The two companies realized they were dancing on the head of a pin. Search = social, social = search. They couldn’t figure out a way to tease the two apart. Microsoft has cast its lot with Facebook, Google, not so much.

When high stakes deals fall apart, both sides usually claim the other is at fault, and that certainly seems to be the case here. It’s also the case with the Twitter deal, which I’ve gotten a fair amount of new information about as well. I hope to dig into that in another post. For now, I want to pull back a second and comment on what I think is really going on here, at least from the perspective of a longer view.

Our Cherished Search Paradigm Is Broken (But We Will Fix It….Eventually)

I think what we have here is a clear indication that the search paradigm we’ve operated under for a decade or so is broken. That paradigm stems from Google’s original letter to shareholders in 2004. Remember this line?Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.

In many cases, it’s simply naive to claim Google is unbiased or objective. Google often favors its own properties over others, as Danny points out in Real-Life Examples Of How Google’s “Search Plus” Pushes Google+ Over Relevancy and others have also detailed. But there is a reason: if you’re going to show results from all other possible contenders, replete with their associated UI and functional bells and whistles (as Google does with its own Maps, Pages, Plus etc.), well, it’s nearly impossible now to determine which service is the right answer to a particular person’s query. Not to mention, you need to put a deal in place to get all the functionality of the service. Instead, Google has opted, in many cases, to go with their own stuff.

This is not a new idea, by the way. Yahoo’s been doing it this way from the beginning. The contentious issue is that biasing some results toward Google’s own products runs counter to Google’s founding philosophy.

I have a theory as to why all this is happening, and I don’t entirely blame Google. Back when search wasn’t personalized, Google could defensibly say that one service was better than another because it got more traffic, was linked to more (better PageRank), and so on. Back when everyone got the same results and the web was one homogenous glob of HTML, well, you could claim “this is the best result for the general population.” But personalized search has broken that framework – I lamented this back in 2008 with this post: Search Was Our Social Glue. But That Is Dissolving (more here).

With the rise of Facebook and the app economy, the problem of search has become terribly complicated. If you want to have results from Facebook in your search, well, that search service has to do a deal with Facebook. But what if you want results from your running app (I have hundreds of rides and runs logged on AllSportGPS, for example)? Or Instagram? Or Path, for that matter? Do they all have to do deals with Google and Bing? There are so many unconnected pieces of the Internet now (millions of apps, most of our own Facebook experiences, etc. etc.) that what’s a good personal result for one person is not necessarily good for another. If Google is to stay true to its original mission, it needs a new framework and a massive number of new signals – new glue – to put the pieces back together.

There are several ways to resolve this, and in another post, I hope to explore them (one of them, of course, is simply that everyone should just go through Facebook. That’s the vision of Open Graph). But for now, I’m just going to say this: The issues raised by this kerfuffle are far larger than Google vs. Facebook, or Google vs. Twitter. We are in the midst of a major search paradigm shift, and there will be far more tears before it gets resolved. But resolve it must, and resolve it will.

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